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Television Time: An Interview with Adventurer Ryan Pyle, Host of BBC’s Extreme Treks

ryan pyle

When we meet television show producer and presenter Ryan Pyle, he’s dressed smartly, in a long-sleeve shirt, clean shoes and a light, comfortable looking blazer. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same man who has led quite the life, having ridden across China on a motorbike, trekked across extreme deserts and climbed some of the world’s tallest mountains over the last nine years.

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, the intrepid adventurer and renowned photographer was recently in town to promote the third and latest season of BBC’s Extreme Treks. “I love being outside and I love visiting beautiful places,” says Ryan. “So I might as well get out there and go find the most beautiful places out there and walk to spend time in them. It relaxes me, it’s good exercise, and it connects and immerses me in each place in a way driving or cycling can’t.”

The premise of Extreme Treks is simple – each week, we sit ourselves down in front of our TV after a long work day and tune in to find Ryan and his team making their way across some of the world’s most picturesque landscapes. With this season, Pyle has taken the extreme travel docu-series to new heights – literally, as he visits the highest point in the Southern Hemisphere and scales the tallest mountain in Russia. Says Ryan: “With each season of this series, we keep trying to outdo ourselves with even more exotic destinations and challenging journeys, something we’ve delivered in Season 3. It’s been such a dream to put together a show that’s so diverse, coming up with these locations and getting the amazing opportunity to walk them and showcase their stories.”

Ryan recounts some of his favourite treks this season, finding himself hard-pressed to pick one to name his top one. From the gruelling challenges of walking through Jordan’s Wadi Rum Desert to the ever-changing volcanic highlands of Iceland, shifting from lush grassland to stark sides of volcanoes over 150 kilometres. “If I had to pick one,” Ryan finally decides. “It’s probably going to be the gorilla tracking we did in Uganda. We’ve scaled mountains and bashed through jungles before, but we’d never done anything like this before, and didn’t know if it would work, but somehow, it did. We spent days just walking to where they lived, and then six hours watching and tracking the whole family, seeing how they worked together to eat and take care of each other.”

In a sense, beyond simply admiring the landscapes Ryan encounters, so much of Extreme Treks ends up becoming a cultural experience in itself as he meets locals, indulging completely in each world and country and learns about their stories. “Take the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea for example – it’s actually a historical trading route between local communities, but also the scene of a major skirmish between Australian and Japanese forces in World War II. As a producer, it’s really exciting to find these alternative angles, where we go beyond the physical beauty to find each hidden story and really enhance the viewing experience for audiences.”

In speaking to Ryan, it’s impossible not to get drawn into his enthusiasm as he speaks about the show, a genuine love and excitement in his voice as he tells us about the process: “As much as I’m a TV host, I’m also a logistics expert. When we do the show, we have to plan the best ways of getting all our gear in and out, how many camels or donkeys we need, the flights, the hotels…and it’s awesome. I get so much energy from seeing and encountering new things all the time, and it’s 100% what drives me. My mind is always racing – what’s the next crazy place I could go to, how can I make a trek out of that, and I’m always in research mode, so much that I’ve pretty much planned out Season 4 of Extreme Treks months ago, so I’m ready to pitch the idea once we get a green light to go ahead. There’s really never a day I’m on set or planning that ever feels like work.”

“Plus,” he adds. “It helps that on these treks, I’m disconnected from e-mail, with no mobile phone or laptop. I end up sleeping really well out in the wild, where the air is clean and I’m so close to nature out in a tent – I actually end up feeling more recharged at the end of a trek than I was going in. Sure it’s tiring, but you rest a day or two, and then you’re ready to hit the world again with a newfound fire, and I honestly wouldn’t know what I’d do with my life if I wasn’t doing this.”

Even on television, there is no divide between ‘TV host’ Ryan and ‘real’ Ryan – they’re one and the same genuine person. “If you put up this facade, people are really smart and can tell immediately,” says Ryan. “I think the reason why YouTube channels are so popular is because people are looking for that sincerity, and that unfiltered view into someone’s life. That’s something I hope to bring to my show as well – sometimes I swear, sometimes it’s freezing cold and things are tough, and it takes 10 days to get to the top of that mountain and when I do, I just start to cry because it feels so unbelievably good.  It’s a real emotional roller coaster on set! When you show vulnerability, people are more willing to accept and listen to what you’re trying to show them.”

“It helps that I’ve got a lot of support from my production team, who’ve been working with me ever since I started doing this 9 years ago,” he continues. “They’re pretty much a family to me, and as difficult as it is for me to be in front of the camera, it’s even harder for them to be filming during those same conditions! We’ve managed to stay a team for so long because I respect how hard their work is, and there’s a mutual respect from them for how I put in all this work into planning in between filming to make sure we’re always ready to hit the ground running.”

Rewinding a little, we talk a bit about Ryan’s otherwise normal upbringing and past, and how he went from a Political Science major at the University of Toronto to the adventurer extraordinaire he is today. Says Ryan: “I was playing basketball for the varsity team at the time, and as an athlete, you’re just tired all the time, and there’s no time for hobbies outside of sports. After I graduated I realised I wasn’t going to go pro, and suddenly, I has all this time and energy, and I discovered my other interests – reading and writing. After graduating I packed up my bags and went to China, started working for local magazines and papers before graduating to airline magazines, then publications like TIME, Newsweek and the New York Times as a photographer and writer.”

But it wasn’t long before tragedy struck, and his journalism career came to a standstill. “When the 2008 financial collapse happened, it basically wiped out print publishing, and I had to figure out something entirely new to work towards. I decided – I was gonna make TV,” he continues. “I had all these ideas but kept getting all these rejection letters – National Geographic, Discovery Channel…all people I work for now! I kept all the letters because it was oddly motivating. In this industry, you gotta grow a very thick skin, and had this thought where I’d get one yes out of every twenty letters I sent out. So I’d keep trying to rack up all the ‘no’s, and the closer I got each time to 19, that’s when I knew the yes was coming to me soon. I just kept living for that yes, and for someone to give me the opportunity and resources to let me go and have another adventure and show the world what I’ve done via a show.”

Ryan’s big break came about when he decided enough was enough and ended up using his own savings to fund a self-made TV show – Tough Rides, in which he and his brother Colin rode BMW bikes the entire way around China. “Towards the end of my journalism career, I began to get fed up with how the foreign correspondents would always have the exact same angle whenever they wrote about China, and it was just so monotonous and repetitive,” Ryan says. “With Tough Rides, I was going to break that impression completely, and as someone who was living in China for quite some time already, I had the knowhow and familiarity with the place to show people a different side to it. The show set a Guinness World Record, and ended up getting picked up by the Travel Channel. It wasn’t an easy feat to achieve – you had to get all these permits and it was financially straining, but I think the channel saw what I was trying to do and knew that no one else would ever end up doing a show like this. And with that – I showed people I could produce, direct and host my own show. It launched my career, and that’s how I ended up in TV since then, and I still appreciate how I managed to take something so positive out of what could have ended up really negative.”

Ryan has been based in China since first moving there in 2002, and cites it as a ‘comfort zone’ and perfect testing ground for his ideas with his familiarity with the place. Beyond the first season of Tough Rides, the very first season of Extreme Treks was centred around China too, seeing him travel to Tibet and walking the remote Sacred Mountains of the region. But of all countries, why China? Ryan laughs and asks genially: “Are you ready for a story?” We nod, and he tells us.

“In my second year of university, I needed to take my Fridays off because as athletes, we’d spend weekends travelling out of the city to play games. I missed a ton of classes in my first year because I didn’t do that, and it was a real pain to catch up to schoolwork. So to fulfil my requirements, I had to take this specific class on Thursdays, the only one available to make up my credits – an introduction to modern China. I went in with no expectations, and that course blew my mind with just how fascinating this country was. It’s funny – half the students at the university were Asia, but mostly from Japan or South Korea or Taiwan, so no one was actually talking about China. It was the late 90s, and China was still opening up in so many ways, with so many possibilities for this country with 1 billion people and all this history. Of course, I continued to take similar courses about China in my subsequent years in university.”

“So once I knew I wasn’t going to go pro for basketball, I thought that since I did all this studying, I ought to go see what China’s actually all about. I went there with the intention of just backpacking for a couple of months, teach English and experience all that before coming back to Canada and becoming a banker or something. But within a week of being there, I was just blown away. I thought – this is where I need to be, there’s such a great energy and development and excitement…and it was just exploding in all the right ways.”

The son of former Canadian waterpolo player and Olympian (Munich 1972) Alan Pyle, Ryan also attributes the positive mentality his sporting background equipped him with to the success he enjoys today. “The most important thing I took away from that was understanding that you just don’t quit, about working hard and pushing yourself beyond your limits. It’s not so much the physicality – so many people in this world talk themselves out of doing something really fun when they say they’re not fit enough to withstand a bit of discomfort. So we were in Argentina, and there were these ripped guys with six packs and all we encountered, who’d trained for months as they climbed Aconcagua Mountain with us. In the end, they didn’t make it to the top. My team on the other hand, we have this one guy, fat and jolly who doesn’t work out much, and each and every single one of us made it to the summit. It’s a matter of psychology.”

We ask Ryan a little about his philosophy in life, and he pauses, reflecting: “You’re never going to improve if you stay in your comfort zone. If you’re waking up every day and not struggling to do something, you’e probably not going to achieve what you want to. There’s a lot of people in the city just like that, and to get ahead, you’ve got to stand out with a good idea and a lot of hard work. For me, it was really terrifying and uncomfortable at first, with so much uncertainty, but I’m glad I got through it, surrounded by people who supported me.”

He concludes: “In trekking, climbing a tall mountain is so much easier than walking across a desert; mountain climbing is a gorgeous experience, and you can see your goal at the top and know how close you are to completion. Deserts, on the other hand are completely soul-destroying because everything looks exactly the same. You don’t know why you’re walking in a certain direction, or even if you’re going in the right direction. There’s no physical landmarks, no goals, and no way of judging just how close you are. Along with the physical exhaustion, all this uncertainty gets to you, and it gets hard to motivate yourself, and you’ll see in those episodes it’s a lot less focus on the landscape and more in ward looking, focusing on my own struggles instead.”

“But to get through, there’s really no secret – you just do it. You keep breathing, keep walking and keep going. People sometimes give up halfway in life and say ‘what I’m trying to do hasn’t happened yet’, and I think to myself, well, you just have to keep at it, and eventually, you’ll reach your destination. There’s absolutely no shortcut to anything, and you have to go the whole way. It’s exhausting, but when you finally get to the end, it’s unbelievably euphoric, tear-inducing even when you achieve these goals, and just such an incredibly empowering experience.”

Photo Credit: BBC Studios

Catch the premiere of Extreme Treks (Series 3) on Tuesday, 17th September 2019 at 9.50pm. Available on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407) and BBC Player

And if anyone wants to keep up with Ryan on his adventures, follow him on Instagram @ryanpyle and visit his website here 

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